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Trade Unions

Just under a quarter of employees in Ireland are union members. There is only one union confederation, the ICTU, but individual unions, in particular the larger ones, have considerable power and influence.

Figures from the unions themselves indicate that there are around 518,000 trade unionists in the Republic of Ireland, although the official quarterly Labour Force Survey of 2018 identifies only 461,000 union members as employees.[1] This difference is explained, at least in part, by the fact that the union figures include members who are unemployed, retired or self-employed and therefore not included in the Labour Force Survey figures. They may also count twice individuals who are members of two separate unions.   


On the basis of the Labour Force Survey figures, just under a quarter of employees (24%) were union members in 2018.


Unions organising workers in the island of Ireland belong to a single trade union body, the ICTU, with 43 individual affiliated trade unions. The ICTU covers both the Republic of Ireland, where there are 517,830 members, and Northern Ireland (part of the UK), where there are 196,024, giving a total of 713,854 (figures for 2018).[2] The affiliated unions include unions based in both the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland as well as 19 British-based unions. There are only a handful of unions outside the ICTU. The largest is the National Bus and Rail Union with 3,012 members (as at 31.12.2014).


Although the ICTU plays an important part in relations with government, it is a grouping of independent and autonomous unions rather than a confederation dominating and directing the unions which belong to it.


By far the largest union affiliated to the ICTU is SIPTU, a general union, with membership in many industrial sectors. SIPTU has 173,000 members in the Republic of Ireland, a third (33.5%) of the ICTU’s membership in the Republic, and 7,000 members in Northern Ireland. The next largest unions in the Republic of Ireland are the public services union Fórsa, with 89,401, the Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation (INMO), with 39,150, the technical and construction union Connect, with 39,000 members and the retail workers' union MANDATE, with 33,462. The membership of all these unions is exclusively in the Republic of Ireland. The UK-based union Unite is the ICTU’s third largest affiliate, with 54,778 members, but only 21,440 are in the Republic of Ireland, with the rest (33,338) in Northern Ireland (all figures as at 31 December 2018).[3]


Both Fórsa and Connect are the result of recent mergers. Fórsa was created when three previously independent public service unions, IMPACT, CPSU and PSEU merged in January 2018. Connect resulted from the merger of the technical, engineering and electrical union TEEU with the Republic of Ireland membership of the former UK building union UCATT, also in January 2018.


The ICTU is not affiliated to any political party, and it and its affiliated unions cooperate with governments irrespective of their political composition. However, there are historic links with the Irish Labour Party which was founded following a motion at the ICTU conference in 1912.


In the past a handful of unions, including the largest, SIPTU, were directly affiliated to the Labour Party. However, in April 2017, the Labour Party changed its constitution ending organisational affiliation, but creating a separate section – Labour Trade Unionists – for union members in the party. SIPTU continues to provide financial support to its members running for political office, but this is no longer limited to Labour Party candidates but available to members standing for any party, or as independents, provided that they pledge to support the union’s policies.


Union density – the proportion of employees who are union members – has been as much affected by the changes in overall employment in Ireland as by changes in union membership itself. The figures from the Central Statistical Office show that during the employment boom in the late 1990s and the early 2000s the number of union members rose by about 100,000, but union density fell – from 46% in 1994 to 30% in 2007 – as unions found it difficult to break into many of the growing sectors of the economy.


In the economic crisis that began in 2008, union density initially went up – rising to 32% in 2010 – as union membership fell less rapidly than overall employment. However, from 2011 to 2016 both union membership and union density fell, with membership dropping from 498,000  to 416,000 while density fell more sharply from 32% in 2011 to 23% in 2016.


In the most recent period, union membership has again risen – to 461,000 in 2018, but density has increased only slightly to 24%, as overall employment has also grown.


The ICTU figures reflect this change as its membership in in the Republic of Ireland grew gradually to a peak of 612,676 in 2009 but has since fallen by 15.5% to 517,830 in 2019.[4]


The Labour Force Survey does not break down union membership between the public and private sectors. However, figures from the ICTU show that union density is much higher in the public sector than in the private sector. Almost half of the ICTU’s membership in the Republic of Ireland (47.5%) is in the public sector. However, the public sector, including what are described as semi-state bodies, only amounts to around a fifth (20.5%) of all employees. [5].

Union density, at 26%, is higher in services, which include public services, than in manufacturing, where it is 17%, and much higher than in agriculture, forestry and fisheries, where it is just 4%.[6]


The Labour Force Survey figures show that union density is higher among women (27%) than among men (21%) and there are 256,000 women in unions, compared with 206,000 men. The ICTU membership in the Republic of Ireland is also majority female, with 273,201 women members recorded and 244,629 men. As a result women account for 52.8% of total ICTU membership in the Republic of Ireland.

[1] Labour Force Survey, Quarter 2 2018; CSO, Ireland

[2] Report of the Executive Council 2017-19, ICTU, 2019

[3] ibid

[4] Report of the Executive Council 2017-19, ICTU, 2019 and Report of the Executive Council 2007-09, ICTU, 2009

[5] CSO figures show that there were 1,996,800 employees in Q1 2019 but public sector employment, including semi-state bodies in Q1 2019 was only 403,100 CSO EHQ10: Public Sector Employment and Earnings

[6] CSO Labour Force Survey: Employees aged 15 years and over who are members of a trade union by broad NACE  Rev. 2 Economic Sector, Quarter 2

L. Fulton (2021) National Industrial Relations, an update (2019-2021). Labour Research Department and ETUI (online publication). Online publication available at http://www.worker-participation.eu/National-Industrial-Relations.